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Saturday, September 08, 2012

Why are religious questions out of bounds?

Hello Prawfsblawg participants!  It's great to be back -- during my last stint as a prof, a VAP at BU a few years back, I was an occasional contributor to this fine site.  And now, as I'm going on the AALS job market for real this fall, it's a pleasure to be back in the PB saddle, as it were.  

My two main areas of interest are law & religion, and law & sexuality -- or, best, a combination of the two.  I've just finished my Ph.D. in religious studies at Hebrew University, and in my non-prawf time, have been an activist for LGBT people in religious communities.  To avoid the taint of self-promotion, I'll omit the title of my book here...

I thought I'd start my new Prawfs career with a question that some people find obvious, but which I find to be a conundrum: why, in elections, are religious questions out of bounds?

As a scholar of religion, I'm used to inquiring into why people hold religious beliefs -- even ones which strike non-believers as absurd -- and of course as a legal academic, I'm accustomed to the social-constitutional norm of separating religious and political questions.  But, particularly on the religious studies side, there's no clear reason why judgment calls when it comes to religion are somehow insulated from judgment calls in every other area of life.

Consider an extreme example.  If a presidential candidate were a member of a UFO cult, and believed that aliens were going to scoop up all believers in 2013, we might reasonably ask whether such beliefs are incompatible with the long-term vision and planning required of a president -- right?  

Obviously, my question here is really about Mormonism, a newish religion which has some tenets most Americans will find very strange.  Why is it unfair, as a matter of evaluating Mitt Romney's judgment, to ask whether he believes that God is a corporeal human being?  Or whether Romney expects to be physically reincarnated on his own planet?  Or whether he believed, prior to 1978, that African-Americans were cursed to be dark-skinned (2 Nephi 5:21), or that dead people could be posthumously baptized?  Or how about the cardinal principle of the faith, namely that Joseph Smith discovered golden plates engraved in a foreign language on September 22, 1823, in Manchester, NY -- plates he later returned to an angel?

It's considered doubly verboten to criticize any of these tenets of the faith: first, because Mormonism was, for almost a century, the object of bitter persecution, and second, because questioning someone's religious beliefs is supposed to be off-limits in American political discourse.  After all, no one would question a candidate's belief that an omnipresent and incorporeal deity impregnated a 1st-century Palestinian woman, or parted the Red Sea.  And the only thing that distinguishes these preposterous beliefs from Mormon ones would seem to be that the former are older and more widespread.

But there are some distinctions.

First, Romney is not just a rank-and-file Mormon.  He was a bishop -- not as big a deal as it sounds, since Mormon bishops are locally-appointed and limited in power, but still a big deal.  This is someone who has really bought into these beliefs.  Doesn't it matter if the beliefs are, well, absurd?

Second, these beliefs may strike millions of people as deeply troubling, and Romney has not been forthright about them.  To take but one example, Christians don't believe that God is a corporeal being who has had sexwith women.  For Romney, like other Mormons, to glide over the differences between Mormonism and Christianity is dishonest.

Third, religious beliefs, like other beliefs, tell us about the character of the believer and what we may reasonably expect her/him to do.  By way of parallel, I think it mattered a lot that George W. Bush was a Biblical literalist and born-again Christian, and I think it was irresponsible that mainstream media never made much of this.  I think we can trace many of his demonstrably harmful policy decisions to his religious beliefs: the war in Iraq, his destiny as a world leader, the clash of civilizations, and so on.  It's not as if all our "secular" decisionmaking takes place in one part of the brain, and religious decisionmaking takes place in the other.  Religious beliefs are as germane to being president as ideological ones.

Now, it may not be a negative for Romney that he believes some of this stuff.  America is a heavily religious country, and Romney's faith may be an asset.   It's also unclear what the effect of a more honest discourse about religion and politicians would have on Romney's opponent, a longtime Christian who many Americans still believe is a Muslim. Surely Obama would be loathe for anyone to remember his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, or for anyone to question the secondary role religion has played in his life.  No doubt the Obama people are happy to let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to religion.

But I'm not interested in the partisan net gain here.  I think it's crazy that our country is considering electing someone who holds beliefs that I find to be so completely untenable -- and I say this not just as a religion scholar but as a somewhat practicing (if not exactly believing) Jew who has written two books on Jewish spirituality.  I'm perfectly willing for my religious beliefs to be scrutinized, and I think the way in which I hold them is absolutely relevant to my overall personality.  If I were willing to believe what Mitt Romney is apparently willing to believe, I wouldn't trust myself.

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  I'm working on a larger article on these subjects, so I'm especially eager to hear what you have to say.

Posted by Jay Michaelson on September 8, 2012 at 11:49 PM in Law and Politics, Religion | Permalink

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Absolutely I think questions about religious beliefs should be fair game. I think it sheds light on credibility for a large number of politicians, and I think this would lead to a lot of them to more critically analyze their own beliefs and how serious they are about them. It would be interested to know why Democrats who claim to be Catholic, like Joe Biden, why they do not believe what the Church says about abortion or gay marriage, or at least why they bother to still be part of a Church they disagree with so seriously. Do they truly believe that they consume the actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ at Mass? If not, why don't they leave?

Posted by: TJM | Sep 9, 2012 12:16:53 AM

Great, provocative question, here are my theories:

1. Politicians and the media elites, on a certain level, know several things to be true, at least on a self-repressed, totally unspoken level: A. Candidates religious beliefs cannot possibly appear credible, plausible, or rational in the face of diligent and serious critiques B. To be exposed as holding utterly irrational, indefensible beliefs central to one's life would be profoundly embarrassing and upsetting, and C. Most of the electorate and viewing public holds the same or broadly similar sets of irrational and implausible beliefs, or beliefs that are not similar but are equally irrational and implausible. As such, they cannot possibly criticize politicians religious beliefs without deeply and irrevocably alienating the electorate and/or viewers: people do not forgive being shamed that way.

2. Religious beliefs only 'make sense' among a community of believers, and all believers know that on some level, but they are also absolutely essential for maintaining that community and that community is vitally important to many people's lives and sense of self and family. So people don't want to be answerable for their religious beliefs and, as a result, also do not want to bring others to account for them, except when they feel that their own community is so overwhelmingly more credible and socially central than the one they are criticizing (thus, a Catholic might criticize the beliefs of a Mormon or a Scientologist, but they won't criticize the beliefs of an observant Jew, an Evangelical or a Mainline Protestant).

3. Politicians (and to a lesser extent people in general) who are not religious or not devout, *also* don't want people to ask them about their religion for several reasons. First they often pretend to be religious even though only really having a cultural appreciation of their supposed religion, or a devotion only to the moral values they believe it represents (this is, I suspect, a strategy employed by many American politicians), because this is the only way they can be politically viable in a place like the United States or Iran (in contrast British or Australian politicians have no such constraint). If you self-identify as a Christian but you don't really believe in, for example, salvation from inherent sin through the blood sacrifice of God's only son, and you're not going to want to answer questions about it.

4. Religious identification has for whatever reason become one of the core identity groups that organizes American political life, along with race. As such, critical inquiry into religious beliefs is understood as attacks on the religion's adherents and as such, bigotry and prejudice, as if religion were an immutable characteristic (which, of course, it isn't, but it feels like that to many people). As such criticism of religious beliefs reflects more poorly on the critic than on the believer.

Posted by: SG | Sep 9, 2012 12:18:38 AM

Replying to TJM, I suspect the reason why politicians who disagree with the teachings of the catholic church continue to identify as Catholics is that Catholicism is an identification, affiliation, and shared community of experience, more than a belief system. And people get a lot out of those communities without believing, including solidarity and support, not to mention that the political reality of the United States is that to be plausible as a politician you *must* affiliate yourself to some religious community.

Are all religions like that? I'm not sure. It seems clear that there are many so-called "lapsed Catholics" and "secular Jews" who continue to identify as Jews and Catholics despite not believing any of the distinguishing features of the Jewish or Catholic religions. I suspect this is also the case for many mainline protestant denominations. I do not think the decision whether one attends a Methodist church or a Lutheran church relates to which side of specific theological debates one finds most convincing - I think it has to do with feeling an emotional attachment and identification with a community, likely one that one's parents or spouse brought them to, and finding that one in fact does like the people who attend the services of one's own denomination.

On the other hand, it seems to me that born-again Evangelical Christians who left a mainline protestant faith they were raised in for a much more theologically and socially conservative religious denomination often or even usually do find some element of their denomination to be especially compelling. Some can identify particular moments when they had a religious epiphany and decided to accept Jesus Christ, found that they were "saved", etc. For them it seems like the religious experience is in part about the community but also has a large component revolving around a specific set of religious beliefs (and religiously motivated political beliefs). On the other side of the religious spectrum this is also probably the case for the most liberal religions: people clearly join the Unitarian Universalists or the United Church of Christ in part because they espouse social and political values they agree with and do not espouse social, political and religious doctrines that they find incompatible with their own belief system.

Posted by: SG | Sep 9, 2012 12:46:55 AM

I would probably not qualify the questions you list as "unfair" (or "fair" per se, but rather, as (mostly) irrelevant. I'm no supporter of Romney (to say the least) but it's hard for me to understand why his views about the material nature of god is of the slightest relevance to being president, any more than any other candidate's views about, say, transubstantiation. Given that these views are not very likely to be relevant, it seems likely that the main reason for asking about them or focusing on them would be to stir up religious prejudice. This is, of course, especially likely with minority religions, though it need not be limited to them. Since the answers are so unlikely to be directly relevant to the job, and since they are likely to be used more to stir up prejudice, it seems to me that there is good reason to avoid them.

Not all questions about religion are like this, of course. Certain religious beliefs might well make one incapable of doing certain jobs properly. Beliefs about racial or gender hierarchy might fit here, for example. (There are probably others, too.) If there's a legitimate worry that such beliefs would keep the candidate from properly fulfilling the job, then they should be asked about. But at least the large majority of questions you mention above don't seem like that to me at all- several of them not even close. Given their remoteness to the qualifications for the job, and their likeliness of stirring up religious prejudice, there seems to be good reason to avoid such questions, unless some compelling reason to ask them can be produced.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 9, 2012 12:52:55 AM

Are religious questions really out of bounds? Here are two stories from today's news:

"Romney invokes God, slams Obama on proposed military budget cuts"
http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-romney-invokes-god-20120908,0,861257.story

"Faith and family on center stage at Romney event"
http://www.indystar.com/article/D2/20120908/NEWS/309080015/Faith-family-center-stage-Romney-event?odyssey=nav%7Chead

And here are just a few stories from the last two weeks:

"Romney makes Mormonism part of his big night"
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120830/us-cvn-romney-mormon/

"Obama, Romney share their Christian views"
http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2012/08/president-obama-mitt-romney-religion-faith-cathedral/1

"Is Mitt Romney a Christian or not?"
http://heraldnews.suntimes.com/opinions/14526813-474/is-mitt-romney-a-christian-or-not.html

"With Romneys in Their Midst Mormons Cheer Attention to Faith"
http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-09-02/at-church-with-romney-mormons-cheer-attention-to-their-faith

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 9, 2012 1:01:32 AM

When people believe things like transubstantiation for *secular* reasons they're regarded as crazy and such beliefs are seen as compromising their ability to rational generally. If someone is convinced that a pop tart is the actual and literal body of Elvis whenever Heartbreak Hotel comes on the radio, this would have a serious impact on their ability to hold office not because this belief would come up often in legislative or executive decisions, but because it would reflect poorly on their susceptibility to reason and rationality.

But its off limits to think something like that with regard to religious beliefs.

I agree that such inquiries when directed at people who have religious beliefs that, were they secular, would be considered delusional, is regarded as prejudiced and bigoted, but the question is why it is in the one and not the other. Such inquiries are also not generally felt prejudiced and bigoted when say, picking a romantic partner, a minister, or a school - so clearly people think that they reflect something of importance.

Finally I think most religions contain beliefs that are highly politically relevant. If you for example believe that God gives every blastocyst a soul, that the Bible condemns homosexuality (or, in contrast, if you believe such passages have been mistranslated or their applicability has lapsed) such beliefs have a major impact on how you're going to view significant social issues. More generally, if you believe in the existence of sin, the immortality of the soul, and hell for anyone (non-believers? those who do xyz but not abc? no one? etc) these doctrines have hugely wide ranging political relevance. Even a universalist belief in heaven (i.e. that everyone goes to heaven) is going to radically impact on how someone sees life and death and government responsibility.

Posted by: SG | Sep 9, 2012 1:17:45 AM

Re: "Or whether [Romney] believed, prior to 1978, that African-Americans were cursed to be dark-skinned (2 Nephi 5:21), ... ?"

I understand that it was not founder Joseph Smith but rather his successor Brigham Young who made this the Mormon position and that this was connected to the issue of whether slavery should or should not be extended into the territories, including Utah, i.e., this was a political - not a religious - position. As I understand it, Young was not too enthusiastic about the Union cause.

With regard to 1978, it should be pointed out that this change was 24 years after Brown v. Board of Education. So it would be interesting to explore Romney's beliefs in this regard. Race has surfaced in the current campaign. Consider this recent remark: "The demographics race we're losing badly," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told the Washington Post. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." Romney, to my knowledge, hasn't commented on this, perhaps for obvious political reasons.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 9, 2012 3:33:41 AM

Yes, I was puzzled in 2008 at the reluctance of the media to pose the question of how the Democrats nominated a candidate who found Jesus through a spiritual advisor who was a race-baiting anti-semite and in whose church the candidate participated for his entire adult life. Oh, that's right - he was a Democrat so such questions would be unfair and racist.

Posted by: Mark | Sep 9, 2012 9:16:32 AM

The only thing treated as "out of bounds," both by elite guardians of the discourse and by average folks, is any question that is insufficiently respectful to an accepted religion. Congratulations to Mormonism on obtaining that "accepted" status.

This leaves an enormous number of questions about religion being completely in-bounds (at least in the view of tens of millions if not hundreds of millions), such as "Is he Muslim?" or "Does she go to church enough" or "Is he secretly a secular nonbeliever?"

When the question is reframed in this way - why are questions insufficiently respectful to an accepted religion treated as out of bounds? - the most obvious answer is "Religions are all completely irrational when you get right down to it, but at any given time in history a handful of them hold immense power and they want to keep it that way - and one way of doing that is by creating a societal norm that one must not point out that they are completely irrational."

Posted by: Sam | Sep 9, 2012 11:00:35 AM

Jay,

You say that you don't mind your religious views' being challenged. So let's start with circumcision:

As far as belief is concerned, do you agree that a child of Jewish parents is born an atheist? Isn't it true that circumcision represents the sexual mutilation of an atheist baby for the parents' religious superstition?

Posted by: Jimbino | Sep 9, 2012 11:57:27 AM

I ponder this question almost every day from the point of view of an atheist and scientist. I think one key to understanding the religious mind is to ponder the vast gulf between science and religion.

Science is not just a collection of knowledge and facts. Science is a way of thinking that affects every facet of your life. True scientists are agnostic about everything; they do not have faith; they do not believe in anything, particularly in the validity of believing.

According to the Pew Forum,

http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Scientists-and-Belief.aspx

scientists are overwhelmingly atheistic, especially when it comes to belief in a personal god, with biologists and mathematicians leading the list of those who have no use for the god-hypothesis. I join the group of scientists that considered Francis Collins unfit to represent scientists because of his professed beliefs.

On the other hand, our politicians are overwhelmingly believers. They are also overwhelmingly ignorant of STEM, with only Breyer on SCOTUS, nobody of POTUS since Hoover and Carter, and only some 8 of 525 in COTUS who have shown any sophistication in the sciences. You would think several had mastered Economics, at least, but you would be wrong, since to master Economics one needs to have mastered advanced math. You would think several had mastered Medicine; again, you would be wrong, since the study of Medicine also requires some mastery of math and science. Ron Paul is a notable exception, and of course it shows. (As it does in the cases of Thatcher & Merkel, both scientists)

Take a look at the training of the seated Justices:

Roberts: History
Scalia: History
Kennedy: Economics
Thomas: English
Ginsburg: Government
Breyer: Philosophy
Alito: Public and International Affairs
Sotomayor: History
Kagan: History

At the national level we are largely led by believing non-scientist lawyers. There is but one professing atheist among the 546 and no WASPs in SCOTUS or POTUS.

I have spent some time trying to teach Baby Math and Baby Physics to pre-laws and pre-meds. Only very few would risk taking advanced courses in math and physics in college because of the threat to their GPA that a B represented. Of course, the patent bar requires advanced study in STEM or Economics, and few lawyers and no Supreme Court Justices would qualify to practice patent law!

Some 5 state constitutions explicitly prohibit atheists from serving as lawyers or jurors. It's a good thing that belief in god was not a job pre-requisite for the Manhattan Project, the Space Race or the iPhone.

China is a booming nation of atheists. Let's see how long our nation can survive, much less continue to lead, hobbled as it is so thoroughly by religion and supertstition.

Posted by: Jimbino | Sep 9, 2012 11:59:16 AM

An important point not obvious to those less familiar with Mormonism: much more important than Romney's position as Bishop was his role as Stake President. The titles are not self-evident, but a bishop is the lay head of a local congregation (a "ward"). Bishops usually serve for a few years at a time while working full time elsewhere. It's an important position, but one that many (though not the majority) of men seriously involved in the Mormon church will hold at some point. Stakes are the organizational level above the ward, so the stake president is in charge of many congregations and reports directly to Salt Lake City. It's much more like the position of bishop in the Catholic or Anglican churches, though, again, it's treated as a lay position in Mormonism. Unsurprisingly, though, the workload is much higher than it is for a Mormon bishop, so it effectively becomes a second full time job. While many Mormon men serve as bishops at some point, the percent who serve as stake presidents is very small.

All of which is to say that Romney's role as a stake president is far more important (to him, to the Mormon church, and to us) than his position as a bishop. It's just the title "bishop" seems to have been grasped on by the media because it is familiar.

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Sep 9, 2012 12:33:34 PM

Jay, part of the problem with using Romney's beliefs as a proxy for understanding who he is and how he would govern, is getting a good feel for Mormon beliefs.

Presumably, with a Ph.D. in religious studies, you have a better understanding of religion than most. But, with that said, most of your statements of Mormon belief are caricatures at best. (As an believing and practicing Mormon, I'd accept probably one or two of your assertions as an accurate reflection of my beliefs.) In order to understand what Romney's Mormonism means to him (or Obama's Protestantism, or Biden's and Ryan's Catholicism, for that matter), you need to put in the work to understand his beliefs.

And that's probably not the last step. Although it's easy to treat followers of a religious faith as monolithic in their actions and beliefs, that does plenty of violence to the diversity within a faith community. So, after you've figured out what it is that Mormons believe, you need to figure out what Romney believes that Mormons believe.

And, for all of that, it probably doesn't tell you as much about his potential presidency as reading his tax plan would. So the effort you put into understanding his religion, while potentially enlightening, probably provides a very, very limited marginal return on that time in terms of how you should vote.

So, while I don't think religion should be--or is--off-limits, its ability to add to the decision-making process is significantly limited.

Posted by: Sam Brunson | Sep 9, 2012 1:50:12 PM

I agree with those commenters who challenge you on the idea that these questions are "off-limits" in the first place. There is very obviously no law against the invocation of these questions, and it seems that one of the WaPo and NYT has a profile of some aspect of Mormonism every week. The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the church's historic racism, just to name a few, seem to be getting an enormous amount of attention. Nothing off-limits about those issues.

However, it is, or should be, the case also that raising the questions in the way you've raised them (a phrase I would have placed in bold or italics, for emphasis) indicates your own religious intolerance/bigotry. I use that last word carefully, and recognize that it gets thrown out rather readily. But here, you are ready to reduce George W. Bush's march to war to his evangelical Christianity, and ready to call it "crazy" that so many people don't seem to mind that Mitt Romney apparently believes things about God and the universe that you, and presumably they, view as untenable. This reductionistic view of these religious groups indicates religious bigotry: you view people with religious beliefs different from yours as inferior, irrational, and demonstrably harmful, even though you (as the practicing Mormon on this thread reports) have made little effort to confirm what those beliefs might actually be. You would ban from public office people who don't share your metaphysical view about the world. And that, in my view, means you are a religious bigot.

You may protest and say that this kind of accusation is exactly the subtext of your post: Why is it, you might ask, that a person who inquiries about a candidate's religious beliefs is automatically dubbed a religious bigot? Since I assume you wouldn't identify yourself as a bigot, or at least wouldn't prefer to be outed as a bigot while in the position as a job candidate, you would say that such an automatic characterization makes these inquiries "off-limits." But there is a difference between your post as written and the question as I've reframed it. Inquiries don't suggest bigotry; judgments that a person whose beliefs are different from yours makes them unfit for the benefits of civic society does. Consider Mormonism's historic racist exclusionary policies. Is someone who wonders, in print or even in a question aimed directly at Romney, whether he believes that blacks are inferior by virtue of their race, a religious bigot? Of course not; the focus is on Romney's personal beliefs about people, ideas, or policies that bear, directly or indirectly, on the work he would do as President. Is someone who wonders whether Romney wears the special Mormon underwear a religious bigot? Of course not; curiosity about another's metaphysical beliefs is a healthy aspect of civic society. Bigotry comes not from the judgment the interlocutor makes based on an individual's own policies, and certainly not from curiosity about a candidate's beliefs. It comes from a conclusion that one who has different metaphysical views about the Universe are necessarily absurd; and that one who has those differences should be denied participation in society. You appear to belong in the latter category of people. And that, with all due respect, makes you a bigot.

I should note, as a liberal Democrat, I hope Romney loses, and loses badly.

Posted by: Liberal Prof | Sep 9, 2012 4:05:53 PM

Liberal Prof, are you equally on fire about bigotry against those who adhere to no religious doctrine? Are you up in arms against Mitt Romney's saying (yesterday or the day before) "I won't take God off our money," as though that were a matter at stake in this election?

I think that your view, as stated, is part and parcel of what gets us to the silly place where our politics exists today: all candidates for high office must profess to adhere to one of a few varieties of standard accepted religious doctrine, are encouraged to speak in pious generalities about how important religion is as guidance to them, and beyond that, none of us is allowed to ask "well what do you really believe and how will that guide you?"

I would prefer a politics where none of this matters - where a whitepaper on tax policy matters, and religion does not. We're not there, and the heat in your comment is not getting us any closer.

Posted by: Sam | Sep 9, 2012 6:00:17 PM

As a matter of fact, Bush says he's not a biblical literalist, and he's said it plainly enough that even a bigot could understand it. It's a peculiar kind of ignorance which layers speculation and conjecture on top of the initial error. I suppose it's fitting that we see it happen in an academic's area of interest.

SG, do you have any evidence to support your views on the importance of these questions?

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 10, 2012 12:14:27 AM

Re: Thomas, I'm sorry but I am not exactly sure what you mean about evidence to support my views on the importance of "these questions" (which questions?). I think what should or shouldn't be important to a voter is really a value judgment that we can only make reasonable arguments for, not an empirical question that one can provide empirical evidence as such for.

Posted by: SG | Sep 10, 2012 2:01:01 AM

This posts's title question suggests, I think, another one: what *counts* as a religious question? I assume that those commenters who have been having some fun citing various "crazy" religious beliefs, and calling for more STEM-literate leaders, don't imagine that politicians' talk about "dignity", "rights", "equality", "justice", and "social responsibility" would hold up very well if we asked for a STEM-compliant account of these terms?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 10, 2012 7:23:12 AM

SG--this bit: "More generally, if you believe in the existence of sin, the immortality of the soul, and hell for anyone (non-believers? those who do xyz but not abc? no one? etc) these doctrines have hugely wide ranging political relevance. Even a universalist belief in heaven (i.e. that everyone goes to heaven) is going to radically impact on how someone sees life and death and government responsibility." Is there any evidence to support it? In the US, it seems pretty clear that people who take identical views on these questions find themselves at the core of very different political coalitions. Why should we think what you say is true.

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 10, 2012 9:43:05 AM

I should think that religious views are in play so far as they are proxies for views that are more directly related to policy and legislative agendas. A member of a religious group is likely to share the common views of its members, and perhaps more importantly, to share that groups' ethos. But the politician's belief in particular dogma is mostly irrelevant, precisely because religion is usually an inherited identity, and thus not particularly revealing. And, of course, there is no necessary correlation between a political view and a theological one--many Catholics support the right to abortion, and so forth. In such cases, asking directly about the policy view would be more telling--at least for predictive purposes--than asking about the theological view.

(I should think this might be different for adult converts (does this apply to Bush?--he was saved later in life), but even here the identity aspects of religion trump the the theological ones.)

Also sort of obviously, the same concerns that that support non-establishment also militate towards allowing candidates a zone of privacy around their religious views. The religious violence that drove the framers to include the religious clauses in the Constitution stems from particular qualities of religious belief: 1) it is an important--often the most important--aspect of personal identity--2) religions often make truth claims that are in direct conflict with other religions; 3) these views are axiomatic and therefore often not amenable to argument--indeed, in fideistic religions the entire point is that belief cannot be proved or disproved; 4) being axiomatic, religions can sometimes, on their own terms, claims precedence over civil obligations.

You add all this up, and it means that religion has a special status in pluralistic, rights-based societies--it needs to be both tolerated and cabined. And the avoidance of questions about religion is within the penumbra of this tolerance--a pragmatic understanding that the harm raised by questioning candidates about religion outweighs the benefits.

In practical terms, the legacy of discrimination against the LDS church probably also gives questioners pause.

Adding, I sort of agree that we should talk more about religion, although I think there is little profit in asking politicians questions about religious doctrine--they will either not know, or, if the implications are troubling, obfuscate in their response. But I wish we could talk a little more openly about the cultural implications of membership in a religious group.

Posted by: John Greenman | Sep 11, 2012 2:41:32 AM

"In practical terms, the legacy of discrimination against the LDS church probably also gives questioners pause."

Consider the much newer Scientology. If a candidate professed that faith, wouldn't we talk more about religion? The enlightenment is a continuum, or should be. Consider the challenges to Genesis taken literally. A few year back, I read Gerald L. Schroeder's (described as "an applied physicist and an applied theologian") 1990 publication "Genesis and the Big Bang - The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible." Perhaps in 4000 years there will be a similar book on LSD and the "Plates of Gold." So science must continue challenges of fact/fiction, including in religion. There will be many a "Music Man" out there over the years to sway us with religions/beliefs of all sorts. So, yes, we should talk about religion, especially to challenge religion. Is there really such harmony? "Mayan not to reason why, Mayan but to do or die?" What is it former tennis star John McEnroe used to scream during a match on an ump's call: "Are you serious?"

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 11, 2012 7:05:11 AM

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